learning the art of going fishing

boat-daytime-duck-1105386

… or, reflections on creating spaces for missional conversations

A short time after I arrived in Cullompton I received a telephone call from the secretary of a church nearby.  They had recently refurbished their building and wanted me to go and give them some pointers on how best to use it to ‘get new people in’. 

“We have thought of doing cafe church,” she said, “But we’re not sure how.”

I didn’t know what to say.  I couldn’t even begin to unpack with her how thoroughly mistaken I thought her church’s attitude was to conceiving their future mission.  It seemed  they wanted to learn ‘the art of fishing’ without even leaving the building.

At the heart of the Christian faith is relationship: with God and each other.  This does not happen in a vacuum, nor does it always happen in a church building, and certainly not (although there are occasional exceptions) during an act of worship.

I have often heard faithful church members bemoan the fact that no-one new joins their rapidly declining congregation.  “They don’t come,” said one woman to me at a recent Sunday morning service, when I asked her whether her church had reached out to the newbuild estates down the road. “The local evangelical church knocked on every single door, and they only got a few.”

It saddened me. They were a lovely, warm, welcoming group of people, and their church building was potentially a vital community resource.  But they hadn’t yet grasped the twenty-first century reality, that people generally do not just start ‘going to church’.

If we are to be the ‘Body of Christ’ in the world, we have to be it ‘in‘ the world – not just in the church building. This requires venturing into the unfamiliar, both location-wise and context-wise.  Whether we like it or not, forming and developing relationships among those whose cultural identity and way of thinking are different to ours, is a necessary part of Christian witness.

The process of ‘fishing for people’ as Jesus called it, does not take place in the fisherman’s hut. It involves working out where the fish are and going to that location, before even considering casting a line or net. And even then, we can’t expect the fish to just ‘bite’ the line or swim into the net. They have to think there is something worth swimming that way for.

Creating a ‘bait’ – a means of engaging those who might otherwise not be interested in becoming ‘fish’ – requires creative thinking.  It is not easy to step outside of one’s own horizons to imagine what might attract a non-church person to become a follower-of-Jesus.  It requires, first, understanding oneself: what it is that fires and inspires us as Christians that might be attractive to others, but also what are the assumptions of which we need to be aware when trying to communicate our dearly held faith?

The second stage is creating the ‘line’ or ‘net’ – the hook that will attract the catch.  Is it an activity? a venture? or simply a conversation starter?  What it is will depend both on the fisher and fish – it will have to have potential to work for both, and as already established, it is unlikely that the location will be a church building.

And then there’s the vital stage – that bit where Jesus is mentioned.  And God. And faith. And what it means. And the hope that they won’t run a mile…

… in my experience they usually don’t, and all things considered, things turn out okay. What’s the worst thing that can happen? They say no. And you can try again with them another time… or not.

The thing about fishing is that a fisher can never guarantee a catch. I guess the life of an evangelist is just the same…

To read more about creating spaces for connecting with people who don’t go to church go here.

Read more about relocating mission here.

Advertisements

the end of an era… or on the threshold of something new…?

… a concluding reflection on my ‘Hug Cullompton’ years.

614921_511521685528553_1599187832_o At the weekend I said my goodbyes to those I have walked this journey with. This week my family and I will move on to pastures new.

Endings are often sad, and for me this ending is made all the more poignant by the fact I am leaving during what is clearly a time of transition for Hug Cullompton. Life moves on and people’s circumstances change.  For many of the Huggers change is something to be welcomed, but for others it is difficult to envision Hug Cullompton being any different.  They weren’t there to see it being conceived and birthed, and emerging into a shape which has altered as the organisation has grown.

So what is Hug Cullompton, and what might it become?  For many years I, along with many others, have been trying to it – but really it defies description: for it really is like nothing else. Part of that is because it is utterly contextual, created from nothing in a particular time at a place with a certain group of people; but it is also because it has been so experimental. It is the result of a shared vision of a group drawn together by their vastly different spiritual backgrounds and beliefs, reflecting the religious and social complexity of our time.

Together we have explored what it means to be in relationship, both with a God beyond human imagining and with each other; whilst at the same time sensing an urgent need for transformative change in our community and the world.  As a Christian I would summarise our raison d’être in the words of Jesus:

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself. (Luke 10.27)

But we’re not all professing Christians by any means (although I think we all believe in Jesus); and to describe what we are as ‘a church’ would probably be to stretch the definition too far.  My strategy group has suggested that Hug Cullompton (and my ministry as a whole) might be described as having a liminal function: that is, one which offers the space and opportunity to explore faith and spirituality without the doctrinal and practical constraints of ‘traditional church’.  And in some ways that might well be true. Liminal is an interesting word. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as 

“Relating to a transitional or initial stage of a process” or “occupying a position at, or on both sides of, a boundary or threshold.”

Were the purpose of my post, and declared reason for bringing Hug Cullompton into being, simply to create church, then this would be a fair enough assumption.  And I certainly see a desperate need for the church to create ‘liminal’ spaces – both physically and spiritually – where a journey of faith may be embarked upon at a far earlier stage than ‘going to church’.

But I wonder if describing Hug Cullompton as occupying a liminal space does it a disservice.  Liminality suggests standing on a threshold to something else – an intermediate stage for those who will move onto something different (better?).  Of course I will be moving on, as my post has been for a set time and I am now leaving to move back into more traditional church contexts.  But for the other members Hug Cullompton is not transitional. It is their spiritual home, a place where they are free to question, to explore, and to play their part in making the world a better place.

When I was appointed to this post ten years ago, the then Moderator who appointed me told me, “Do not be afraid to fail.” I have often pondered these words.  What does failure look like, and was I always going to be expected to achieve nothing more than that?

I suppose if ‘success’ were to be measured in terms of numbers of bums on seats on a Sunday morning, I have failed utterly and miserably. But I really don’t think, in this case, that’s what the definition of success was meant to be. The whole point of the post was to be freed from traditional limitations and expectations in order to experiment with what church might one day become.  And I’ve certainly done that.

There will be one more blog before the year is out – my suggestions for churches wishing to create ‘liminal’ spaces for people thinking of beginning a faith journey.  For a deeper reflection on my experiences go here.

What to do about angels…

christmas angel.jpg

… or, a reflection on what we understand by the term ‘angel’

Last week I took my final pub carol service at my current local, the Pony and Trap.  It was a fabulous occasion, with readings taken straight from the Bible and carol singing led by the community choir.

The theme of this year’s service was Angels.  We heard the story of the Angel Gabriel visiting Mary and the choir of angels singing for the shepherds in the fields; and the choir led us in the singing of Angels from the Realms of Glory.

In my view Christmas really isn’t Christmas without angels.  They feature heavily in the Christmas story, as they do sporadically throughout the Bible. The word ‘angel’ means ‘messenger’, and describes a being, either in human or heavenly form, who appears in the world to impart the news that God is about to intervene to change human history.

‘Everyday Angels’

The angels in the Christmas story appear in a grand spectacle – they command their terrified recipients to “not be afraid.” Although their appearance may be far less remarkable, I’m convinced that all of us have experiences of angels in our lives, someone whose activity or message makes such a subtle change in our experience that if we are not alert we might miss it.

A member of Hug Cullompton once spoke about the ‘everyday angel’ who held a door open for her when, exhausted and laden with shopping, she had thought she could go no further.   At the carol service I described the landlord and landlady of the pub as ‘everyday angels’. They have what I call a ‘remarkable ministry’ to their customers, offering loving care (as well as serving a drink) to anyone who comes through the door, regardless of how they look, act and sometimes smell. If an angel is God’s messenger, and God is love, then (as I told the congregation gathered in the pub on Thursday night) the demonstration of unconditional love they demonstrate in their pub makes them ‘angels’ in my book.

Talking about Angels 

In my everyday work angels are a common topic of conversation.  Opinions on them are incredibly varied, probably as varied as those I encounter about the existence, nature and identity of God.  Some people think they are acts of the imagination – the creation of someone needing an emotional crutch to hold on to.  Others can describe what their Guardian Angel looks like, even down to the clothes they wear.  There are those who view angels as just another pie-in-the-sky idea of those peddling a ‘fake God’, and equally there are those who take seriously what the Bible says about them, believing them to be agents of God through which the direction of human history is changed forever.

Although I don’t think I’ve ever seen one, I can quite well believe in angels. If I can believe that a man who walked this earth 2000 years ago and died on a cross was God in human form, why not believe God acts in other miraculous ways to save the world and/or its people?  The thing about belief is that it cannot be proved right or wrong – and anyone who says any different is mistaken.  My daughter recently asked how I know God is there. I replied:

You know when you are trying to go to sleep and I’m in the next room? You can’t see or hear me, but you know I’m there, you can sense my presence.  Well that’s what God is like for me.  I can’t see or hear God, but I know God is there. And just knowing God is there makes me feel better.

Perhaps angels are a bit like that – or perhaps not. Who knows? After all, isn’t everything to do with belief just a leap of faith?

Walking where Christians fear to tread

fullsizeoutput_159a…or, exploring faith with people who practise ‘alternative spiritualities’

I have already written about the first time the group which became Hug Cullompton met. What I haven’t written about is what happened the evening before.

I had been at the town’s intercessory prayer group.  It was an ‘invitation only’ group, and as I was quite vociferous about my need to pray I was invited to become a member.  During the meeting we had been reading Ephesians 5.6-11, which speaks about being ‘children of light’, committed to ‘tak[ing] no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expos[ing] them.’

At the end of the meeting, having heard me describe the spiritual support meeting I was attending the next day, the participants gathered round me and laid hands on me to pray that God would go with me into the darkness.  It wasn’t until after I got home I realised they genuinely thought I was taking part in “the unfruitful works of darkness.’

I find it fascinating that, in many church traditions, there is a desire to understand and partner with people practising other faiths (known in the trade as Inter-Faith Dialogue), while those who engage in what are labelled ‘alternative spiritualities’ are treated with far less dignity and acceptance.  Certainly I was brought up to believe they had no proper grounding other than a leaning towards the occult.

My experience has been entirely the opposite.  The people I have encountered during this particular walk of faith have been gracious, generous and accepting of my beliefs in a way that many of my fellow Christians would never reciprocate.  I have learned much about the basis for what they believe and do, some of which is centred in spiritualities more ancient than Judaism, and which predate the coming of Christ by at least 2,000 years.

I have learned how important it is to treat our bodies with respect, to listen to them, and to relate all that we think and feel to our ‘createdness’.  I have learned about the close relationship between body, mind and spirit, and how it is connected to the past present and future in ways we do not understand, but which God does.   I have watched radical healing take place before my eyes, and I have wondered how this can NOT be of God.  I have read my Bible, trying to work out how all this might contravene what is written there, but have found no condemnation, only affirmation.

And in doing so I have found a stability in my own faith in one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, orthodox as it is; and a renewed confidence in talking about Christ Jesus,  who accompanies me in every aspect of my life – as saviour, friend and guide.

The three most important lessons I have learned in my years walking alongside the other members of hug Cullompton:

  • that the expressions of love, grace and acceptance we see practised and recorded in scripture can sometimes be more evident in faith communities that wouldn’t describe themselves as ‘church’ than those that would.
  • the importance of learning to value what I believe, and drawing a line between those beliefs and those with which I cannot adhere (both in Christian and alternative spiritual traditions). In doing so I can act with integrity and without fear, opening myself to learning more about how God works through relationships, both inside and outside the church.
  • that God is good, faithful and just; and will reward those who walk the way of Christ, whether they adhere to traditional church doctrine or not.

For a deeper reflection on my time working with people who practise alternative spiritualities click here

The thorny issue of pastoral visiting

fullsizeoutput_1587… or, understanding why pastoral visiting is an issue of such contention.

In the letters section of the past two issues of Reform (the United Reformed Church’s national magazine), pastoral visiting by ministers (or lack thereof) has once again become the subject of attention.  Ever since I was at ‘Minister School’ it was an issue: what pattern of pastoral ministry should one adopt? How should we decide who to visit? And what if we’re called to the Ministry of Word and Sacraments, but have no gifting in, or flair for it?

The weight given to pastoral visiting of congregations by ministers seems peculiar to our tradition/denomination.  I am a member of several forums for clergy/church leaders, and very rarely do I ever see posts from participants of other denominations concerning pastoral visiting.  I do not wish to downgrade its importance  – it is one of our particular treasures – but I do think there is a distinction to be made between pastoral care (which is the responsibility of the congregation as a whole) and spiritual development (which requires more expertise).  I would like to suggest that understanding their subtle differences requires exploring their rootedness, both in Reformed Theology and the age of modernity.

A Biblical perspective on the issue might involve turning to 1 Corinthians 12 (Paul’s description of the Body of Christ).  The Reformed understanding of Church locates the fully formed Body within the local congregation, requiring it to take on the care and wellbeing of every member: a commendable thing.  But as Paul also reminds us in Ephesians 4, not everyone is called to be a pastor; and as members of the priesthood of all believers, caring should be a communal effort, not the sole preserve of an individual whose job title is actually to proclaim the Word and celebrate the Sacraments.

However, it must also be understood that Reformed Theology has emerged within Modernity, an age during which religion was considered a private pastime and spiritual development an intensely personal activity. I therefore have some sympathy with those reluctant to invite anyone other than a Minister, trained in theology and with the weight of perceived authority resting on his or her shoulders, into their personal space.

As the age of modernity passes, the concept of spiritual development founded in conversation between an individual and perceived expert is also passing. Universal education, international travel and technological developments have given individuals easy access to a plethora of materials aiding personal growth.  How this is impacting on society is an issue for another day; but suffice to say it has a huge effect on how younger people view spirituality.

For most people home remains a personal domain, a place where one might explore spirituality, but certainly not engage in conversation about it.  I am far more likely to explore such ideas over coffee or within the context of a toddler group.  I would like to suggest that the pattern of pastoral visiting  appropriate when I first trained for ministry twenty years ago is no longer so.  Instead I suggest we heed the wise words of a minister who wrote in a letter to Reform magazine (Dec/Jan 2019):

Once again, it appears favourable to re-advocate old and currently impossible models [of pastoral visiting]. But those models have sadly put us where we are today. We must share the care of our existing fellowships whilst seeking varied ways to engage with our changing society to ensure an effective witness of God’s love for the future.

a vision and a challenge for the future

.. or, the call to break open the jars containing our Christian treasures and share them with others.

Treasure in clay jars image

When I was exploring a possible move to Cullompton I visited a number of local groups and individuals to test whether it was the right decision.  One meeting I had was with two female clergy members who ministered in the area.

After a time of conversation we prayed together. One of the clergywomen shared with me a vision she had seen about a piece of clay.  The clay began shaped as a jar, but gradually the person moulding it pressed it outwards and outwards until it became a very different shape.

“I think it means your ministry is going to challenge the shape of the church,” she told me, “And challenge the churches in this area. But it is being shaped by God and will be an answer to prayer.”

I have never forgotten what that clergywoman said, and have reflected on it often.

The image of treasure in clay jars is one used by the Apostle Paul in a letter to church members in Corinth (2 Corinthians 4.1-12).  He is explaining how difficult it is to be the church in a world that does not understand  it or its message.

For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.

From what Paul writes it is clear that the Corinthians are struggling.  They are being threatened and persecuted, and their way of life is at risk.  The gift of their faith is like treasure in clay jars, safe and contained, a precious commodity to sustain them during these very difficult times.

But in my colleague’s modern day vision the clay was very different, reshaped so that any treasure contained in it would be on show for all to see and spilling out for anyone to take.  For me it was, and is, a powerful image and a very real challenge.  It says to me that the time has come to break the mould and allow the treasure of our faith to glisten and gleam for all to see, on offer for anyone who wants to take it.

The Reformed Tradition has many treasures. Some are fundamentals for any church faithful in its call to love God and walk with Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit.  But there are things which make us unique, the particular treasures which shine: our relationship to scripture; our commitment to unity, justice, equality and inclusivity; our belief in living out the call to be one body of equal parts in a particular way, centred in the community where we live.

Perhaps now is the time to break the jars containing our particular treasures, or at least to make a radical remould of them. It’s a scary thought, relinquishing that which has kept us feeling safe and secure for so many generations. But Jesus challenged the rich to give away everything they owned in order to follow him.  Maybe the time has come for us to do that too.

***

This is the first in a series of blogs and articles related to how we might share our treasures. The first article is ‘What’s really going on when sacred and secular collide?’

Is God a man? No, of course HE’s not!

3252627109_e8c0cfbfd0_o

… or, the art of choosing words carefully when we speak of God.

One of the most fascinating conversations I have had in recent years was about what to call God. We were writing our prayer, which is a response to the Lord’s Prayer. Although it is the term Jesus himself used, we really didn’t feel comfortable with using the term translated into English as ‘Our Father.’

I suspect that, when we hear the word ‘God’, each of us conjures up a different image. It might be negative or positive, one that either we have had since childhood or which has developed over the years, and it might be visual or otherwise, depending on how our mind works.

For those familiar with Christian language there is an ocean of imagery to draw on. For a start we describe God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit (or Trinity).  We hear the prologue of John’s Gospel which tells us that, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.”  Jesus called God “Abba”, meaning Father, and in the letters of John at the end of the Bible we read that “God is love.”

But strip away all that Biblical foreknowledge and what do we have? I would like to suggest that the most famous image of God is Michelangelo’s in the Sistene Chapel at the Vatican.  In his ‘Creation of Adam’ painting, God is a depicted as a white haired, bearded man, loosely robed in a Romanesque toga, frowning as he reaches out from his heavenly cocoon to not-quite-touch Adam. Such an image hardly correlates to a creative, loving God who, through the Word, gives shape and meaning to life.

The members of Hug Cullompton who participated in the six week process of creating the Hug Prayer agonised for many hours, days and weeks over how we would address the divine creative power who is entirely beyond us and yet in our midst.  In the end we settled for ‘Divine Embrace’, because no noun seemed adequate. The only option left was to use a term that summed up our collective experience of him/her/it.

It might seem this post is about language, but actually it is an attempt to raise a far deeper and more profound issue we in the church face: not only how we articulate the shared concepts which have shaped our understanding of the world and the one whom we believe created it, but the very concepts themselves.

I know very few Christians who, when shown the picture of Michelangelo’s picture of God, think it’s an accurate depiction of what God is like.  And yet, the way in which many Christians name, address and speak of God gives the impression to the outsider that the God we believe in is imperialistic, judgemental and very, very male.

So what are we to do? Should we abandon all those terms we have grown up using, and which roll off our tongues comfortably? Should those who pray addressing God as “heavenly Father,” be told they can no longer do so?

Of course not.  I would not dream of robbing anyone of the essential elements of their faith and the way in which they name it.

But we do have to realise that such terminology could be alienating to others who have already considered and rejected the image of God as a white haired, bearded man, loosely robed in a Romanesque toga, frowning as he reaches out from his heavenly cocoon to not-quite-touch humanity.  Using terms such as ‘Lord’, ‘Master’ and ‘heavenly Father’ with them could be positively unhelpful.

Language is a powerful thing. Terminology comes with a lifetime’s back-story, rendering the phrase “sticks and stones might break my bones but names will never hurt me” null and void.  Let us choose it carefully, lest we unwittingly turn away those who most need to experience God’s ‘Divine Embrace’ for themselves.

learning the art of not fitting in

177/366 - Abseits / Offside
One year, two perspectives. This image is part of a 365(+1) project, my friend Tilo and I are working on. If you want to see more, check out our website zweisichtig.de.

…or, when being beyond the fringe of the church becomes a bit uncomfortable

Shortly after writing our Hug Prayer in 2015 we decided to renew our window display. The prayer, smartly framed, took pride of place alongside a number of other eye-catching items, including some beautifully coloured and shaped crystals.

A week or two later one of the huggers came into the Hug Hub looking distressed. She had been at a Christian study group the evening before, and someone had drawn attention to the crystals in our window.  Apparently there had been absolutely no conversation about the contents of our new prayer, but everyone had an opinion about the crystals.

Apparently we were “dabbling in the occult.”

Our first instinct was to laugh – partly because the notion that we “dabbled in the occult” as an organisation was completely ridiculous, but also because they hadn’t credited at all the sentiments behind our prayer, the main elements of which were, after all, given to us by Jesus himself.

However, there was a more serious aspect to this.  The conversation demonstrated that the Christians in this particular group (and possibly others in the town) might think that we were somehow trying to corrupt others into following harmful ways.

Hug Cullompton has intentionally chosen to identify itself as a community of welcome for all, including those who have either suffered rejection by the church, or who do not relate to, or have any interest in it.  As a community we accept that people find God in lots of different ways and through a variety of practices.

Because of this we have come into contact with, and ministered to, vulnerable individuals who have been manipulated by people claiming to have particular spiritual gifts. Often their mental wellbeing has been seriously affected. It is a privilege to walk alongside these folk, to advise them, pray with them, help them achieve healing and assist them in finding peace in a God who loves them.

One consequence of the comments from the Bible Study group was that we removed the crystals from the window; not because we didn’t think we had a perfect right to put them there, but because ultimately we are a community which desires peace, reconciliation and empowerment in our town. We didn’t want anything to get in the way of that.

I hope that by now the people present at that group (many of whom I know and work alongside regularly) have realised how unconsidered and hurtful their accusation was – and that they have changed their minds.

I tell this story, not to name and shame the people in the Christian study group, but to illustrate how difficult (and hurtful) it can be to ‘be the Body of Christ’ at or beyond the fringes of the institutional church.  I used to joke that the church people in the town thought we weren’t ‘proper Christians’, while the non-church people we worked with in the community assumed we were a Christian group. In some ways they’re probably both right.

The truth is that we just don’t fit into a box. And intentionally so. My fellow Huggers are much better at feeling comfortable with it than I am, and it has taken a long time for me to realise that fitting into a box isn’t important.  What matters to me is that we are faithful to God and to each other, that we act with integrity, and that we are alive to what God is calling us to be and do… and I’d say we do that in spades!

making our mission and ministry Jesus-shaped

anonymous-blur-boy-572463… or, learning, through reading the Bible, how to serve others as Jesus did.

Since handing in my notice last week (I am about to move to pastures new), I have been reflecting, not only on what has been achieved through my ministry, but why and how.  To do so I have returned to a Bible passage I used for a piece of Ministerial Theological Reflection several years ago. It is the story of an encounter between Jesus and a man called Legion, and can be found at Mark 5.1-20. Below is a summary of four main features  of Jesus-shaped mission and ministry I have drawn from the passage:

Stepping out into the unfamiliar

  • Jesus and his disciples have crossed Lake Galilee to  “the country of the Gerasenes”. Not only is this unfamiliar geographical territory, it is Gentile, so the religious and cultural background of the people is very different to that of the Jesus and his disciples, who are Jewish.
  • Location and cultural identity is important. If we are to be the ‘Body of Christ’ in the world, it is not just for those to whom we comfortably relate to in our familiar day to day lives.  Venturing into the unfamiliar, among those who cultural identity and way of thinking are different to ours, is a necessary part of Christian witness.

Seeing Christ in everyone, and expecting to learn from our encounters with them

  • Legion, whom Jesus encounters when he first arrives, has significant mental health issues, such that he has been forced to live in the graveyard outside the village for the safety of himself and others.  There is not a less likely candidate for the accolade of ‘first person to identify the true identity of Jesus of Nazareth.’ Although there is no reason why he should know who Jesus is, Legion approaches and bows down before him, addressing him both by name and title: “Jesus, Son of the most High God.”
  • Sometimes we need to be challenged to see the world from  a different spiritual perspective. To be open to learning from, and being surprised by, such encounters are evidence of the Holy Spirit at work, and can be symbiotic – a process resulting in positive change on both sides.

Facilitating transformation with a commitment to the long term

  • As Jesus sets about healing Legion’s afflictions, Legion suddenly becomes afraid. He is unsure of his future identity without the accursed mental afflictions which have tortured him for so long.  And yet, when his fellow villagers arrive at the scene, they find him “clothed and in his right mind.”  Jesus entrusts him into the care of those who know him best and can support him longterm.
  • This is a process I have seen many times in my chaplaincy ministry. Change can be a slow business. Presented with the possibility of change, people who are so used to things the way things they are, face an unknown reality stretching into the future. It can be terrifying. Genuine transformative change is a lengthy process, and requires more than a single quick-fix solution. Ongoing support needs to be facilitated, not always under the auspices of the church community.

Trusting that God works beyond the bounds of church congregations

  • The villagers ask Jesus and his disciples to leave. We are not told whether it is because they are afraid of his healing power or annoyed because he has chased a perfectly good heard of pigs to their death in the lake.  One thing we do know is that, when Legion asks Jesus to take him with him, Jesus says, “No,” asking him instead to go and tell the people in his own village what Jesus has done.
  • Our ministry in the world doesn’t always result in new church members.  We cannot see into the future of those we serve, nor can we guarantee that those who cross our paths will continue along them with us.  All we can do is bless them as they go, asking that they tell their story of transformation as they do so.

What I call ‘Jesus-shaped mission and ministry’ is also known as ‘incarnational theology’. To read more about the scriptural background for my incarnational theology click here.

 

The reality of growing up English

hand-play-construction-child-colorful-toy-742206-pxhere.com

or, reflections on how we construct our understanding of the world (and our churches)

The Secret Scripture, a novel by Sebastian Barry (made into a 2015 film), tells the story of Roseanne McNulty, an old woman who has been in an Irish psychiatric institution for more than sixty years.

Through her diary entries, existent scraps of hospital records, reports from the parish priest and conversations between Roseanne and her psychiatrist, the reader is invited to piece together the story of Roseanne’s life. On several occasions Roseanne and the parish priest give very different accounts of the same event.

One might assume someone is lying; but who? The protagonist – an old woman who has been labelled mentally ill – or a respected man of God? In reality both parties are telling the truth as they remember it. It is simply that their memories – and perspectives – are so different.

fullsizeoutput_1494

Everyone has their own story and lens through which they view the world. Our personal narrative is constructed from myriad events and experiences, things we have been taught and assumptions we have made; and it is no different when it comes to our sacred beliefs. The way we worship, pray, interpret the Bible and understand our spirituality are all flavoured by who we are, where we come from and the life we’ve lived.

I am a product of a culture still affected by Colonial Imperialism. Although we no longer promulgate the values reflected in the song Rule Britannia, there does still seem to be a subliminal assumption in the English psyche that our way is the ‘right’ way, even if that is not actually the same ‘way’ as our (English) neighbours.

Whether it is an aspect of our particular psyche, or simply human nature, I would like to suggest that this assumption, manifested most obviously in our political system, is just as prevalent in our churches, particularly in attitudes towards other church traditions. Throughout history these attitudes have caused division, even schism. Today we are left with a legacy of dualisms which might seem insurmountable: liberal/evangelical, Catholic/Protestant, Biblical fundamentalism/relativism, ‘high up the candle’/’so low down the candle I’ve fallen off’ (to do with worship traditions). The last one might sound ridiculous to someone not versed in Anglican phraseology – but I have heard it used often.

In whichever unnamed age we currently live (post-postmodernism?) such dualisms seem both dated and increasingly irrelevant. It is no longer necessary to adhere to all the views of one side or the other. We can accept that we construct our own narrative,  and as we do so we can affirm those whose way of worshipping, praying, interpreting the Bible and understanding spirituality don’t relate to our own.

The readers of The Secret Scripture never will find out the whole truth about what happened to Roseanne McNulty, because she is a fictional character. But people in churches of very different traditions (and none) are not. Perhaps there is a need to listen a bit harder to different narratives, trying to understand where they have come from. By doing this, those holding what might appear to be opposing views might find enough common ground to begin to appreciate difference rather than fearing it, and actually live out Paul’s words to the earliest Christians in Rome:

If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn?…
I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

An example of Living creatively with difference can be found in a previous blog.